In the photographic series ‘Men of Pukar’ by Abul Kalam Azad history shows its inability to connect an ancient culture with the contemporary one. An erstwhile maritime town of Pukar today continues its existence as ordinary as any other town in India. The climate is sunny and sultry as we see in the gleaming exposed bodies of men that Azad captures in his photographs. The men, as Azad points out in one of his introductory notes, do not look like their ancestors who had dared seas, enemies, the changing economies, royalties and patronages. A city that flourished in culture and economy almost 2400 years back has left archaeological remnants though the general life of the town does not show any trace of it and it becomes imperative for an interested student/artist/researcher/visitor to look for the right clues to unravel the yarns of stories that have become mysteries now but had been living realities in those remote ages. A researcher looks for words and symbols but an artist looks for visual clues that could lead one to the dark recesses of history through associative thinking and reading. Azad does just that in his photographic registration of Pukar and the male folk there. Azad has ‘Pattanam’ as a suffix to his name, suggesting the origin of his clan, which in the linearity of (colonial) historical excavations does not feature often in history, and the curiosity and decision to go beyond the colonial parameters of history has led Azad to initiate his ‘Memory Project’ to which the present suite of works, ‘Men of Pukar’ would easily fit into.
If one is a cursory visitor of Pukar, he could leave its historical baggage behind for as I mentioned above, the place does not offer much towards its history. However for an artist, its historical relevance is like a ghost or the Benjamin-ian angel, clinging on to him wherever he goes. Literary references from Chilappathikaram to Manimekhalai, from Akananooru to Puranaanooru (that are generally called the Sangam literature) loom large over the place where the people live blissfully unaware of these ghostly presences. Spirit catchers that artists are, see these ghosts and feel absolutely helpless in shirking them off, and in a way become addicted to such presences especially in those places where their insignificance is largely written all over. Perhaps, Azad trains his camera at such places in Pukar where the history of the place seems deliberately obliterated. To put it in other words, Azad’s interest is not in history per se but its continuity and disappearance, its manifestations in disguise and the ways in which the people have absorbed it in their lives, diluting its academic or research gravity into a quotidian sense of living process.
Continuity of history in the present day life styles without referring back to its source constantly yet acknowledging it in hundreds of small little acts or ways is what we call the culture of a place or people. At Pukar, what Azad searches for is this continuity and what perplexes him as a photography artist is the apparent absence of it. Take any historical city in India like Jaipur, Agra, Madurai or Delhi we see the obvious continuities that paint the city a shade stranger than other modern cities in the country. This could be because of the presence of the architectures and tombs, palaces and forts, and ponds and step wells etc., but in the case of Pukar no such visible traces frame the general life of people. Therefore the task of the artist here is to link up the given absence with a famed history which is otherwise apparent in the collective consciousness of the people who dwell there as well as visit the place. That means, the bodies/persons/events/images that Azad documents at Pukar become the stand in bodies for this continuity. In other words, the absence of history in these quotidian bodies itself marks the continuity of the history that envelopes Pukar. In a way it is a crazy task for Azad as he has to photograph a person who does not have any obvious link with the place’s glorious history and position the image within a narrative in order to evoke history.
Azad doubles up here as a magician as he attempts something nearly impossible. He subverts the very logic of the photographic act/event as photography is supposed to be registering a decisive moment or a series of moments before or after that moment. Photography could also be upfront, straight and a dry registry almost erasing any kind of decisiveness attached to those moments. Photography also has become an act of challenging the very ‘true’ nature of the photographic result where not just by changing the angle or perspective of the photographic tool in the event of registration/documentation but also by erasing the very subject/event that the photographic tool intends to register. Hence, a blurred image could change as well as challenge the ‘truth value’ of a photographic image taking the photographic discourse to a direction that brings the improbable and impossible images as a pivotal component of it. By way of registering the absence of history in the ‘present bodies’ that show no continuity of the said history, Azad almost virtually blurs the bodies and makes them the embodiment of an absent history. It is as good as producing an apparent blurred image through manipulating aperture speed of the camera or by shaking the camera deliberately. Azad’s series ‘Men of Pukar’, in this sense is like hyper-realistic painting done by highly skilled artists in order to take abstraction to its highest form of perfection. Art historically speaking, hyper-realist paintings in fact attempt to collapse the line between figuration and abstraction; at the height of figurative perfection, the subject in the figurative work loses its body and turns into ether; a virtual hologram appearance but ir-real.
With no recognizable male subject/person (with the exception of one or two images) in this suite of photographic images Azad abstracts their presence into forms and figures, the way the hyper-real painters change their subjects. The surroundings turn fluid and the predominant sunshine that is almost palpable in Azad’s frames evens out the contours while the tonal gradations within the available black and white scheme attribute depth and distance, resembling the miniature paintings where the supremacy in narrative defines the size of the images within the pictorial frame. What is starkly visible is the dispassionate gazes of the subjects which are diluted considerably by the photographic gaze of Azad himself, divesting the male subjects of their male-ness and turning them into submissive presences. Historically too this is an irony for the descendants of many warrior clans who are now reduced to ordinary people absolutely unaware of their strife-ridden glorious past. Azad also captures the images of certain local male deities but with no power to dispense on their own, they look frozen in their comic gestures exactly the way the abandoned sculptures show their awkwardness in some unintended postures. This could be a clever ploy of the artist to underline the collapse of history rather than singing paeans to its glory.
Over-presence of the male subjects in a suite of photographs by Azad naturally frames the absence of female subjects in it and it is easy to notice that the erasure is deliberate. The purposefulness that Azad shows in keeping the female folk of Pukar out of his camera’s way is interesting for the famed suites of Azad depict predominantly female subjects as well as queer subjects and their subjectivities in various socio-cultural and religious locations. The politically charged images thus created by Azad have brought him a special place among the photography artists of our contemporary times. However, the absence of females in the present series resonates well with the absence of history that Azad wants to frame in this series and its passive catalyzing in the transformation of male bodies so that the transformation of these bodies could embody history with all its remoteness exactly the way the remoteness of the gaze in the eyes of these male figures turns them into the absentee females of Pukar. Each male body is the forensic evidence to an absent female body, and it is the same mutuality that we witness between the history of Pukar and the men of Pukar.
Before I close this deliberation on history and its absence/presence in Azad’s ‘Men of Pukar’, I would like to draw a parallel between the photographic registers available on a historical but abandoned city like Dhanushkoti in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu and the ‘Men of Pukar’ by Azad. The photographic documents of Dhanushkoti available in the public domain show how each remaining dilapidated structure there takes us back to the natural calamities that destroyed the place at various junctures in the last century. But in the case of ‘Men of Pukar’ despite the obvious connection of each person/event/subject in the photograph with the place and its history, it does not take the viewer to the golden times of Pukar or the Sangam literature. But the collective unconscious tells us that in each person that we see in these photographs there is a little drop of history that turns the subject into an abstraction that prods all of us to look back to see a town submerging into the turbulent waters of time.